Recently I spent five days in Chicago checking out their theatre scene. I tell you, if you ever wanted to get rid of me, band some money together and send me to live there.
Known for its great architecture, home to many great comedians, Oprah and a deep dish pan pizza that can send you into instant cardiac arrest, it was the choice of theatre that most excited me.
First stop (and I mean that literally as I went straight from the plane to the theatre) was Lookingglass Theatre. Lookingglass is founded on the principle of the ensemble of artists who ‘create original, story-centred theatre through a physical and improvisational rehearsal process’. I saw their debut production of ‘Still Alice’. If you’re familiar with Lisa Genova’s novel you will know it’s a story that covers a woman’s descent from early-onset Alzheimer’s and how she and her family deal with the loss of memory, sense and identity.
Playwright and director Christine Mary Dunford has made the choice to have two actresses represent Alice on stage: one clearly as the character Alice (Eva Barr) and the other as ‘Herself’ (Mariann Mayberry). This lends the device to the drama that an awareness of a new identity is being forged and a conversation is taking place between the conscious and the subconscious mind and allows this theatrically to take place. The narrative voice is given dual significance and although this device is used well in the play, I think there is still some room to enhance this artifice for a more powerful duality of Alice’s predicament, especially in the fear of what is known and what is forgotten.
The stripping away of the familiar is also seen in clever set choices by John Musial. Musial’s contemporary kitchen is a movable piece so that each part of the kitchen can be moved or removed and we see this occur as the play reaches fruition until ultimately the metaphor of familiar surroundings becoming an empty barren space hits the audience. It’s a simple but wholly appropriate choice- especially as the heart of the home disappears in front of us.
I also enjoyed the use of the wall as a screen of words, designed by Mike Tutaj- full and vibrant at the start and jumbled and piecemeal towards the end.
The moment in the play I found most powerful was probably Alice’s son, Thomas (Cliff Chamberlain), sobbing as he recounts how much he misses his mother Alice (Eva Barr), although she is right there. It is a beautiful reminder of what makes us who we are and questions whether the ‘shell’ or body carries our life or whether we are fully defined by our stories and how they emerge in our personality.
‘Still Alice’ was a lovely play, although still in preview when we saw it, it was still a little rocky in finding its rhythm and pace. Dunford hasn’t quite mastered the power of the novel in the form of the play. We see the literal deterioration in its characters and through some of the metaphors in set and technical elements but in the structure of the play there is still some work to be done. Each ‘loss’ of memory or identity feels repetitive in its execution on stage in the plot point it explores. I’d like to see how Dunford could play with this more stylistically. She has already employed the dual narration. I would think there’s more that she can do to thoroughly capture the story’s complexity.
I just wanted to add that one of the nice additions to the theatre’s showing of ‘Still Alice’ is to include free workshops on Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness and support as part of their community program. This is thoughtful theatre programming.
Chicago is home to some of the world’s best improvisers and one of Chicago’s best institutes of improvisational excellence is iO. It was a real treat to go and watch the improvised musical stylings of The Deltones. Taking a simple offer like Starbucks we were then taken on a journey of the Harold, the long form staple of improvisation. The Harold might best be explained as a starting scene using the audience offer that involves the whole ensemble exploring the machine of the offer until a theme finds itself emerging from the group. The scenes then involve disparate ideas that eventually find their connections by the end of the hour. This one hour musical improvised theatre explored the concept or theme of what it meant to be free or liberated from convention, relationships, prison, sibling rivalry, even morals. I loved the duet, ‘Be my bitch’ about dog walkers in the park, the gentleman corrupted from convention and tempted to let it all go, and the arsonist out of jail who struggles against returning to old habits.
If you’re heading to Chicago I’d definitely recommend you attend one of the iO shows. This is not theatresports, this is long form improvisation and as someone who does and loves both, you are going to see some terrific stuff here (and I promise you, you won’t be dragged up on stage, unless you throw yourself onto it).
Probably my favourite moment of theatre in Chicago was at Steppenwolf as part of their Garage Rep series. We saw Buzz22 Chicago’s production of ‘She Kills Monsters’ by Qui Nguyen and directed by Scott Weinstein. This is a fairly new company (three years old) and essentially made up of people who came out of grad school and realising good roles are hard to secure decided to form their own collective and stage what they were passionate about- the ‘coming of age’ stories that ‘challenge who we are and who we want to be’. Well they must be doing something right if this production is anything to go by.
‘She Kills Monsters’ is set in 1995, an age before social media instruments of mass communication dominated our very existence. Remember that? This is an epic tale. It is the story of Agnes (Katherine Banks), a conservative young teacher who, as part of trying to reconnect with her younger sister Tilly (Jessica London-Shields), who passed away in a car accident with her parents, stumbles upon her Dungeons and Dragons diary and takes it to a D&D expert to role play it with her. Along the way she enters the world of her sister Tilly and discovers things she never knew, fights obstacles she didn’t know existed and discovers even more about who and what she wants to be.
‘She Kills Monsters’ also gave me something I rarely see in entertainment- a play led by and exploring strong female protagonists. The beauty of seeing five strong women’s roles not defined by men or a search for a mate is seeing the strength to overcome physical, emotional and mental barriers using humour and pathos as a weapon. These are the stories young people need to see, as normally women are grossly under-represented as champions or heroines of their own destiny. Add in the fantasy element and you’ve got a winner.
I loved the use of Dungeon and Dragons to create the character you want to be and represent your enemies in fun and fantastical ways. Buzz22 also used their stage, designed by William Boles with props by Jamie Karas and some pretty spectacular puppets by Colleen Werle to take the rough house staging of this small intimate space and create an epic and intricate world of fantasy and fiction. The clever use of entrances and exits from multiple directions, the action and physicality of the play so close to its audience and even the sign language translations occurring in the right hand corner all made for an inspiring night of theatre. And all of that for $15. Buzz22 Chicago is another thing to put on your list if you are heading to the USA.
Finally, I made the bold choice to go and see Tony Award winning musical, ‘Book of Mormon’, written by the South Park creators. Need I say more? It is a very entertaining musical using the tried and true story formula- put two diametrically opposed personalities together, dump them in an environment with the biggest obstacles to their success you can find and watch it unfold. Two Mormon Missionary elders find themselves in Uganda, a place so full of obstacles it would make your hair curl. Their mission: to convert the people. Anyone who knows the musical will know that it becomes clear very early on that success will be hard fought and although they do succeed in a fashion, it is in the most unexpected ways. It doesn't hurt that it also questions the founding of the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints...in a very humorous way.
The soundtrack to this was terrific and the polish of the show unquestionable. Yes- some of it was a challenge to sit through, I’ll admit. I would not consider myself particularly conservative but strangely enough, what I found fearful to listen to was the references to child rape and female circumcision. Now we know these things happen and thankfully none of this unfolded on stage but was merely referenced and the importance of shocking its mainstream audience is noted, especially in the context of the journey of this play. But it was interesting to see that we prefer to be ignorant to these things, blind ourselves to their existence as we feel powerless to stop them and the authors and composers are well aware of the need to say it aloud and have it enter our consciousness.
‘Book of Mormon’ is deserving of its Tony Awards and I’m glad I saw it. Just don’t know that I could do it again.
So next time you’re in Chi town, make sure you get to the theatre and more than once. We just touched the surface in our brief time there. Avail yourself of its variety and talent and have the best time possible in exploring its arts scene.
And take a warm jacket. You’re going to need it.